1. “Do you remember the time when you/we…”

You may feel that talking about things that happened in the past to the person with dementia is a good way to get them to exercise their memory. However, doing so can feel more like a test and just serve to highlight the problems they are having remembering things.

Instead of trying to prompt their memories, speak of your own memory, such as, “I remember when there used to be a shop at the end of this road.” This allows the person to search their own memories in a calm way without feeling under pressure. They can then choose to join the conversation in their own way if they feel that they want to.

2. “Your (relative/spouse/friend/pet) has been dead for ages…”

Dementia can cause a person to forget that loved ones have passed away, so they may ask after them and wonder where they are. Telling them that the person is dead can put them through the pain of that bereavement all over again, as though it has just happened.

Always try to respond with sensitivity and care. Talk about the person they are enquiring about to see if it brings up any worries or concerns that they are feeling. They may bring this person up regularly, so consider whether they need to constantly relive the pain by being told the news they have passed repeatedly.

Meeting them in their own reality can cause less distress, but this would need to be something agreed on by all who communicate with the person, or it could lead to a lot of distress and confusion in the long run. Always weigh up what is in the best interests of the person involved.

3. “I just said that to you a minute ago!”

People with dementia often struggle to retain short-term and recent memories, which can lead to the repetition of questions that can be frustrating to those around them.

Be aware that they will not realise that they have already said these things to you and so reminding them that they have will just cause distress, whilst not affecting their ability to remember it any better for next time.

It can therefore be worrying and frustrating for them to hear that they have already asked this question and received an answer.

Answer any repetitions in a calm and patient way and, if necessary, take a break if you feel the need to.

4. “What have you been up to today?”

Open-ended questions like these about the past can cause distress to a person with dementia, particularly if they cannot remember what they have been doing that day. It is better to stay in the present moment or talk about what you have been doing in your day instead.

This may then spark a memory of their own day, which they can naturally go into and talk about with no pressure. They may also ask you questions about your day, which will help to start a conversation between you.

5. “We’ll just finish these drinks, then we’ll head out to the shops to pick up some shopping, then stop by the park that’s near to the church, and then…”

Long and detailed sentences like these can be information overload for somebody with dementia. Once their cognitive abilities start to slow down, it becomes much more difficult for them to process several pieces of information all in one go.

Keeping sentences short and simple where possible will help them to not feel overwhelmed. If you will be doing several activities in a day, give the details in stages to allow the person time to process each piece of information.

 6. “I’ll help you put on your nice and cosy little slippers, my love”

Talking to someone with dementia as you would to a young child, with a high-pitched voice and using words such as ‘dear’ or ‘love’ should be avoided. This can come across as patronising and may make them feel degraded.

Always keep in mind that this is an adult you are talking to who deserves to be spoken to as such. It is fine to speak slowly if necessary for someone to understand you better but ensure that your tone of voice stays the same and does not become belittling.

Only use terms such as ‘dear’ or ‘love’ if you know that the person is happy to be spoken to in this manner.

7. “Do you know who I am/who this is…?”

Putting someone with dementia on the spot and asking them if they recognise you or someone else can be stressful for them, particularly if they are struggling to work out who you or the other person is.

In turn, if they do recognise you or the other person, your question could be seen as insulting and offensive that you are asking them in the first place.

As dementia progresses, you will need to adjust your greetings accordingly, inserting your name into the conversation where necessary, such as, “Hello, it’s only me, Kate. I’ve just brought George with me from next door to say hello.”

This way you are saying who you and other people are without making a big deal of it and possibly causing distress to the person involved.

8. “No, you have got that wrong/that’s not right.”

Correcting mistakes made by a person with dementia can be embarrassing and upsetting for them. If they are aware of their error, it could make them feel ashamed. If they are not aware, your response could just leave them feeling confused.

Arguing over it would be even worse and could make them angry and upset. Constantly correcting mistakes will not make the dementia any better or help in any way. Be patient and kind and accept the blame if necessary to move on from the situation.

9. “Your memory is getting worse!”

Constantly reminding someone who has been diagnosed with dementia that they are forgetting things or that their memory is getting worse serves no helpful purpose to them in the long run.

It will not halt the progression of the dementia or enable them to remember things better. All it could do is make them feel more anxious and scared for the future.

10. “What are you doing that for?”

Many people living with dementia find they have a compulsion for their fingers to be actively doing something. They could spend hours fiddling with tissues or bits of paper but will not know why they are doing it.

Pointing this out will only cause them embarrassment or make them feel they are doing something wrong. They are likely to return to the same activity the next day, so it serves no purpose to highlight a repetitive action by questioning it in this way.

‘Fiddle pads’ can help with this need for tactile feedback, if an action is not harming the person in any way or those around them, it is always better to support it.

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